At the outset, the idea of the man responsible for bringing us Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, penning the script for a new Romeo and Juliet for the big screen seems like a terrific plan. And toss in an actress fresh off her Oscar nomination to play Juliet in Hailee Steinfeld -- who is much closer to the iconic Shakespeare character’s real age -- and Romeo and Juliet 2013 should be a good show, chap.
Sure, as a Brit who keenly understands his country’s literary history and nuances of language, Fellowes has high command of the text written by the world’s most well-known playwright. The issue he faced was how to bring an almost four hour play to the big screen in just about two hours and set it apart from others we've seen prior.
That is one difficult and thankless task.
Steinfeld plays Juliet as a girl ahead of her time. When most young women of that age in that time period did what their fathers said, she was one who bucked his wishes and went after true love. A marriage was arranged, but she would not have it. Why? Well… we all know that.
Douglas Booth is Romeo and he sneaks into a masked ball at the Capulet house to visit with the woman he thinks he is in love with. When he sees Juliet across the crowded room, it’s all over for him. The two fall incredibly quickly and it is a young love, so it burns with such passionate emotion, they would rather die than not be together. Shakespeare must have thought, “I can arrange that.”
Of course most of the world knows the story teased in the Romeo and Juliet trailer, so Fellowes and director Carlo Carlei had their work cut out for them to deliver something fresh to add to the long legacy of productions that have arisen from Hollywood and all corners of the world.
There seems to be a thought in Hollywood that Shakespeare must be taken out of its mid-millennia timeframe to add something new to it. Joss Whedon recently staged a cinematic version of Much Ado About Nothing set in modern Los Angeles. And Baz Luhrmann had his Romeo and Juliet that is still so seared on pop culture consciousness with his modern take starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The thing about Carlei and Fellowes' Romeo and Juliet is it sets its drama back in the Renaissance Verona of the original text. The costumes, set and feel are all awfully familiar. The language is a little different as Fellowes tried to interject a bit of his own take on Shakespeare’s prose.
Unfortunately, our Romeo and Juliet review finds that this film only feels like the teenage angst was turned up superficially and without the blazing soundtrack of Luhrmann’s film or the classiness that was Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece. We were simply left wondering why this Romeo and Juliet even had to happen.
Steinfeld is terrific and her and Booth save the film completely. But, there are two others that elevate it and both are surprises. Ed Westwick’s Tybalt is a rage-filled dynamo, and the best part of the film is Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. In various productions of Romeo and Juliet, Laurence is played as a buffoon or an afterthought to the story as a whole. In Fellowes’ script, the Friar's intentions are as pure as they can get, and with Giamatti wielding his words… it is a blissful joy to watch him work.